Tuesday, March 3, 2015

TOAD HILL

It is tradition now; a sunrise hike to the top of one of the hill overlooking CMC College. Last time I was joined by a merry (or not so merry if you are a late rising British companion) band of compatriots as we trekked up College Hill. Breakfast and hazy views of the surrounding region greeted us at the top. This time I was joined by a solitary spirit with a desire for adventure. We met at my house and blazed a trail to the base of Toad Hill. We had no path to follow, but assumed that we would eventually find a path if we just kept going. Toad Hill is significantly steeper and less well-traveled than College Hill, making for a hearty physical challenge. We eventually found a path marked with sporadic white arrows painted on the ground or adjacent rocks.

Now I’m from the PNW, a place of plenty hiking trails, and from a family (or at least a raised by a father) who enjoys outdoor adventure; hiking included. I’m not a stranger to a good hike. However, most of the hikes in the PNW are blazed by folks who firmly believe in switchbacks to ease the challenging grade and make the trek to the top more manageable. I used to hate the switchbacks. I would always think that walking back and forth was so tedious and that a straight shot to the top would be so much quicker. I know better now.

The trailblazers of Toad Hill must have also found switchbacks to be tedious. That ruthless trail was unrelenting in its accent to the ridge. I don’t think the humidity and heat helped raise the enjoyment factor any, but finally summiting that beastly hill brought a feeling of triumph and accomplishment. At the top we enjoyed the views and a cool morning breeze before starting our descent.

As it turns out, the decent was much worse than the ascent. Part of me wished I could climb back to the top and just live there. Someone would deliver me tea and biscuits, right? At the point in which we met the trailhead, we again turned to blazing our own trail, this time with much less success and much more bramble to scramble through… and monkeys. I still get a kick out of seeing monkeys on the trekking adventures. Our trek ended at the local pool, and the cool water never felt so refreshing.

The lessons learned:
  1. Sometimes the tedious parts of life are there for a reason… to make things more manageable.
  2. Preserving through a difficult challenge will often result in a “mountain top” feeling of accomplishment. Keep on. 

The view to the northwest from about a third of the way up. The double hill in the left mid-ground is College Hill. 

The view to the east from the top.

View to the northeast from the top.

A shot on the descent-- to the northwest. 

Monday, March 2, 2015

WHY DID THE CHICKEN CROSS THE ROAD?

The age old question we ask while never exactly knowing the true answer. Let’s be honest, do we even know why we ask the question? In India, crossing the road is a true art form. After spending a little time along the roads here, I have come to believe that a real chicken will not have the opportunity to cross the road. It will be transformed into a most excellent curry dish before having the chance to contemplate the possibility. If, for some reason, the chicken escapes the clutches of certain death-by-blade, it will likely meet its doomed fate within the first meter of attempting to cross the road.

For the human, crossing the street here is an everyday opportunity to walk the gauntlet. (Picture that scene in First Knight where Richard Gere tempts fate with his bold walk through the gauntlet.) There is no need to wait for traffic to completely clear or you will be the chicken that never crosses the road; traffic is just not going to clear unless it is late at night or early in the day (i.e. still dark out). When attempting to cross the street, one must look both ways (mostly out of habit because that is what we are trained to do and because you will continuously be shooting glances up and down the street anyway), then direct your attention to the closest ten feet of road. When the first ten feet are clear enough for a launch attempt, you say a prayer, commit to your decision, and quickly glace the other direct to make sure a random auto or bike has not decided to go rouge. Once you clear the first ten feet, you re-assess your position to determine at what pace you should finish your act of courage. Sometime you slow down to let a vehicle pass, other times you speed up to avoid being run down by an on-coming bus. With swift and agile movements you proceed across the street, never for a moment letting your mind wander from the task at hand. This whole beautiful, exhilarating dance of human and machine should be done as quickly as possible; it is a quick-step, not a waltz. The most important thing to remember is to commit to your decision. Once you start, you got to keep going. Keep calm and dash on.


Once you reach the other side, send up a prayer of gratitude before resuming your may resume your ponderings on the age old question of why the chicken crossed the street… noting that you cannot be classified as a chicken for conquering that death-defying act.


This is your gauntlet.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

CAN’T TAKE IT PERSONALLY

I have found that my Tamil is not as rusty as I had thought. My vocabulary has not dwindled much, and my pronunciation is about where it was when I left. I have picked up a few more words and am finding reasons to use them. I haven’t yet mastered the infamous “zh (see point #4)” letter combination; however, after choking on my tongue a few times I am getting closer.

Not only has my Tamil changed, but I’m finding my English has as well. I have begun to phrase things in the way many of my friends do. I catch myself completing a sentence and then thinking, “Wait, did that even make sense?” but more often than not my point has been received and the conversation carries on. None of the alterations in my grammar are hard to figure out, but it is certainly not the way I’m used to speaking. I also find myself thinking in Tamil-English as well. Let me give you a few examples:

I slept off= I fell asleep
I have reached= I’m here
I have taken food= I ate
I will drop you= I will give you a ride

There are times when I find that I need to think differently about what someone says in order to make sense of someone’s comment to me. Let me give you an example (a bit of a comical example). This morning as I was walking down the road to my duty, one of the physios that works at Rehab was pulling out of his driveway and offered to “drop me.” This particular physio is very quiet and keeps to himself, sharing only his tender smile and nod of head. I accepted his kind offer and as I climbed on the back of his bike I began to rethink my initial impression of him; I originally thought he was opposed to my presence in India.

The ride was short and fairly quiet; however, as well pulled up to rehab he turned to me and said, “You have added much weight.” I shot him a quick quizzical look while simultaneously thinking, “Did he just tell me I look like I've gained weight?” “I know my Indian attire is not always flattering but…” “Here I thought we were starting to get along and he goes and calls me fat!” “Boy! God bless the people who just speak what’s on their mind!!” It then dawned on me that more than likely he was just commenting on the fact that he doesn't often have passengers with him on his bike and that my presence made bike handling a little more challenging; after all, there were a few rough bits on the trips. I thanked him for the lift, gave a little chuckle, and reminded myself not to take things too personally before considering the context, and also... eat only one idly for breakfast. 

WHERE THE HEART IS

For those back in the USofA who might want a glimpse of my original accommodations, I thought I would post a few photos of my home away from home. I am so grateful to my gracious hosts for letting me join their life on Mullai Nagar, even if it was only for a short time. I loved every part of calling this home. Meha and Kriti, please forgive me for sneaking in some photos. Your hospitality will remain a highlight of my trip, and I hope one day to repay you the favor. You have blessed me so greatly.

The living room from the entrance.



The living room looking towards the doorway.

Another shot of the kitchen




The exterior entrance

The second floor of the blue house was where I first resided. 

TROUBLE WITH THE LAW

The difference that has had the most impact on this trip is the presence of friends; friends that recognize me quickly and surround me with welcoming arms and delighted smiles. Friends that offer me a place to stay without hesitation and before I even think about where I’m going to lodge. Friends that go out of their way to meet me where I’m at and help me when I need it. Friends that cordially usher me to the police station ad nauseam to attend to business.  And friends that offer to bring me tea in the local prison at least once a week.

Before you go imagining me sitting on the floor of a dark and muggy prison room, let me say that I am not currently in prison nor does it look like I will be sent there. In fact, there was never a valid reason for me to be shipped up the river; however, due to the number of times I had to trek to the police station it became a bit of a joke among my friends that I was on my way to prison. Let me try to explain the situation.

As I mentioned earlier, I have friends who graciously and without reservation offered me a place to stay. I had the option to reserve a room with Mrs. George (here I stayed last time), or live a bit more like the average hospital staff member. I took the second option. You know me… always looking for a way to push my personal comfort zone to a new level. I had been warned that I would not have a private room, bed, air conditioning, Western toilet, or a Western shower. I liked the sound of all of the above so I took my friend Meha and her delightful roommate Kriti up on their offer. What I had not been warned of was how much the police would not approve of this arrangement. No one knew, to be fair.

When you arrive as an international in India you are required to check in with the local police… for safety and security reason, or so I’m told. When checking in with the police, they take note of your lodging location and confirm that it is a safe place for you to stay. Most international students stay on the CMC Campus at the hostel, so it is not an issue. As I was staying off campus, the address I gave threw a red flag for the chief inspector and he refused to give me his seal and signature until I could submit a letter from the home owner stating he would allow me to stay there as well as his I.D. proof.

My friends and I informed the landlord that we would need this documentation and he immediately come for a visit. He is a cordial man, a local politician, who was a bit skeptical of a white girl traveling alone to India, especially seeing how old I am and not married!!! However, I charmed him with my one word of intelligent Tamil and behaved myself during his stay and he gave his consent to my visit, yet declined signing any letters. He told Meha that she could sign the paper and show her CMC i.d. and call it good.

As luck would have it, that wasn't good enough for the police. Mind you, we found this out after about the fifth trip to the police station. The Chief Inspector keeps his own schedule and is often not available at convenient times, and when they tell you a time to return it is often not in sync with the ever-changing schedule of the Chief Inspector. Each time I went I would take a new friend with me. Most of the time they were just as confused as me with what was required; however, they could at least speak the local language.

At long last, the sad decision was made to take up residence at Mrs. George’s house as she had letters of approval from the Chief Inspector and Bureau of Indian Tourism to house international visitors. Now, I don’t mind Mrs. George’s home at all. She is so welcoming and if affords quite comfortable accommodations. That little gecko that bunked with me last time was even there to welcome me; however, I am alone there. I am not with my friends.


Having spent the first half of my trip with Meha and now the second half with Mrs. George has given me a greater insight on the phrase “home is where your heart is.” Yes, Mrs. George’s residence has a very home-like feel to it and is fully equipped with a bed, Western shower, Western toilet, etc.; notably missing is the element that makes it home: the heart—the hearts of friends that make a house a place you want to retreat to at the end of the day. Last night as I was dropped off at Mrs. George’s home, I wandered in to her lovely place and the empty feeling of solitude began to creep in. I was alone again. I longed to walk up those stairs to my room and turn into Charlie’s room to discuss the events of the day, but I knew her room was empty. I wished that I could sprawl out on the low mattresses on the floor of Meha’s apartment and dive deep into a conversation on pros and cons of Indian culture as it relates to healthcare. I knew that when I arose in the morning, Kriti’s amazing cold coffee wouldn't be waiting for me when I got out of the shower.

What I have learned is that you don’t need beds, Western showers/toilets, A/C, or private rooms to be happy and comfortable. You need to be surrounded by the hearts of people you care about and who care about you. People who will walk through life with you, even if that walk leads to the police station eighty-seven times in one week.  
Manoj: one of the many friends I have met here in Vellore


Meha and I at lunch on Thursday

Ronald and Divya: never a dull moment with these two.

Mrs. George, my gracious hostess.
The view from my new residence.

WORTH MORE THAN A THOUSAND WORDS

If you followed my blog at all the first time around, you may notice that this time there are fewer photos presented in each post. This has been the source of an internal struggle for me. On my previous trip I became very accustom to taking a plethora of photos everywhere I turned. Charlie can attest to that fact. My habit was both rewarding and restricting. I reaped the rewards later when I was able to look back over the photos and reminisce of all my experience; however, living behind a camera can restrict the ability to fully live in the here-and-now. This short trip seems too short to hide behind a camera, thus I have limited my photo taking to (mostly) snapping shots of subjects and experience that are uncommon and/or meaningful to me personally. I am laying aside the old camera to be fully present in the current experience; because forfeiting the possibility of a good photograph to truly live deep in an experience is worth much more than a thousand words. 

That being said, I will try to share a few photos throughout the blog, and here is a few to start with. Many of these are familiar scenes to me. 

The road in front of the Rehab Institute: Bagayam Junction just ahead.

The road to Mrs. George's house. Charlie, it is paved now!!!


Some of the many school children who swarmed me standing midst the local dairy farm.  

(Charlie, the woman still sits and waits. After two years she still maintains her post!)



This shop is the landmark used to find Mrs. George's home. 

Thursday, February 26, 2015

NOT ENOUGH IN THE PLENTY

It is everywhere I look. It is everywhere I go. It at the hospital. It is down the lane I’m residing. It is on the bus. It is everywhere I turn. I cannot escape it. It is the plenty. Colors. Faces. Noises. Vehicles. Smells. There is so much of it all, that this raised-on-a-quiet-farm girl cannot help but be amazed by it all. If I cannot see the bustle of life around me, then I am likely to either smell or hear it close by. All my senses are bombarded with stimuli. It is impossible for me not to feel the evidence of life all around me. Life that is not easy. Life that does not always seem fair. Life that is not clean. Life that is not neatly packaged in white-picket fences and two-car garages. But life that is vibrant. Life that is raw. Life that is beautiful. Life that is plentiful.

Two weeks. It is not enough. It is not enough time to fully acclimate and sink into the appreciation of the life here in India. It is not enough time to spend with all the people I remember so fondly and have reacquainted with so easily. It simply is not enough time to spend soaking in the plenty.